Steven Bell thrilled to have played his way into permanent Partick Thistle deal
WHEN Steven Bell first spoke to Ian McCall on the phone as the Partick Thistle manager sounded out the East Kilbride centre-half over a loan move to Maryhill back in March, the veteran defender saw the opportunity as a simple enough job. He’d come in for the second half of the campaign, play the odd game here and there, and provide an experienced head in the dressing room to guide some of the younger players at the club through their League One title tilt before heading back to the Lowland League a few months later.
It didn’t work out that way, though. With the Jags’ previously watertight defence becoming alarmingly leaky as their promotion charge threatened to run out of steam, McCall pitched Bell into the starting XI with his side trailing 2-0 at half-time at East Fife. They went on to snatch a point, Bell’s place in the first team was assured and … well, the rest is history.
What had initially promised to be brief stint in Glasgow’s west end will go on a little longer yet after Bell put pen to paper on a one-year deal with Thistle. At 36, he knows the chances of him playing every minute of every game are remote at best but he insists that so long as he is contributing to the team – on or off the pitch – he will be feeling fulfilled at Firhill.
“I’m absolutely over the moon,” Bell said. “When I first arrived I never anticipated it being more than a short-term loan so for me to be given this opportunity to represent the club for another year – it’s special.
“I always felt it was just a matter of time. I spoke to the gaffer at the end of the season once the celebrations had died down and he told me that I was in his thoughts for next season and that he wanted to keep me. It was just a case of sitting down at a table and looking at a couple of options.
“My contract with East Kilbride didn’t expire until Thursday so we wanted to show respect to them but there was only ever one place I was going to be and it was here.
“At my age I can’t guarantee that I’m going to be in the team every week so it’s down to me to prove it like any other player. Nobody has a divine right to play. You need competition for every place in the team to keep you on your toes.
“That was why I came here – to provide competition to the team that was already playing. Before I came here the defensive record was really good and it maybe wasn’t happening at the other end but I got myself in the team and managed to stay there.
“A lot of it is to do with what you do away from the game as well – what you’re eating, how you recover, how you train, how you’re sleeping. It will be extremely difficult to get into the team but that’s what Partick Thistle demands.”
That professionalism appears to be a large part of why McCall was so keen to retain Bell. The Thistle boss has repeatedly paid tribute to Bell’s conduct on and off the park since the defender pitched up in Maryhill, and hopes that it will rub off on one or two of the more fresh-faced members of the squad.
Bell explained: “This is the third club where I’ve worked with the manager and we’ve built up a good relationship. He sees me as someone in the dressing room who has that experience and can pass that onto the younger players.
“I’d like to think I’ve got a calming presence in the dressing room and I’m a good listener. I’m adaptable around players as well and I like to encourage my team-mates. I know I’ve been in the game for a while but the days of moaning and groaning at other players are gone. My experience, not only in football but away from the game as well – being a parent and doing other lines of work – it’s certainly helped me become a better individual.
“I think the gaffer sees that and he knows it’s something I can do – help out my team-mates and try and get the best out of them. That’s something we spoke about and that’s one of the reasons he wants me here.
“He knows that even if I’m not playing, with the type of character that I am, I’ll be pushing people around me to maintain standards. If that means I’m not playing then fine, it’s about the club first and foremost.
“It’s all about the club doing well. If I can help the club – whether that’s out on the pitch or in the dressing room, I’m happy to help.”
As well as the demands of playing Championship football next term, Bell will also be juggling a full-time career away from football. His working pattern allows him to still train regularly with his team-mates and he insists that even if he misses the odd session here and there, he believes it is an arrangement that brings the best out of him.
“I have a full-time job outside football and the way it works is I can get into most training sessions because I do certain shift work,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it leads to a busy week but it’s something that I’ve been doing for the last for or five years and it’s a relationship that seems to work really well between me and the manager.
“One of the things is that at my age, I wouldn’t be training every day anyway – a lot of my time would be spent doing recovery sessions and I can do that in my own time. It’s an in-between contract for part-time and full-time. Whenever the manager needs me here, I’ll be here.
“There are a lot of players doing it. Airdrie offer contracts like it – it’s called a hybrid. The way they do it is that they would train part-time players at night. So for instance, the full-time players will train maybe twice a week and then the part-time players will train a couple of times in evening sessions.
“Obviously that won’t happen here but because I work shifts and I manage my time, I’ll only miss one or two training sessions.”
Now that Bell has dotted the is and crossed the ts on the relevant paperwork and is officially a Partick Thistle player, three of the five players brought in on short-term deals to get Thistle’s title charge over the line have now made them permanent.
Scott Tiffoney was snapped up after his Livingston contract expired with James Penrice moving the other way while Ross MacIver, the centre-forward who arrived on loan from Motherwell for the run-in, also signed on a free transfer. The moves add some continuity between the team that finished as League One champions and next season’s side that will be aiming for back-to-back promotion.
“If you look at the three players that have signed – the three of us had a really big impact on and off the pitch,” Bell reasoned. “Scott Tiffoney has turned into a fans’ favourite here already and quite rightly so for what he’s done.
“I managed to play ten games and I felt I did well. And I’ve got that relationship with the manager already so he knows what I’m like as a person. And then Ross contributed really well – he’s a young, up-and-coming striker and he’ll be pushing Zak [Rudden] and Brian [Graham] for a start. Sometimes that happens in football – you sign players on loan with a view to making them permanent if they do well.
“My initial thought that I would be coming in to support the team and to play when called upon. I probably played more games than I thought I was going to but it worked out well. It isn’t something that we really spoke about during the season. When I came here I didn’t think it would be long-term but the manager seems to be really happy with my performances.”
As well as returning faces, there are one or two unfamiliar ones to have checked into Firhill in recent weeks after defender Kevin Holt signed a two-year contract and playmaker Kyle Turner last week followed suit after his Dunfermline deal expired. Unfamiliar, that is, for the most part.
“Kyle came through the ranks at Stranraer when I was the captain and he’s one player I’ve always kept an eye on,” Bell added. “I’ve got a good relationship with him.
“It’s a great signing for the club because I know he had other options. The manager spoke to me about him as well but obviously he knows all about him in the first place.
“I waited until the end of the season and after the gaffer had got in contact with his agent, Kyle got in touch with me to ask question like you normally would: that’s just what players do. I completely bigged the club up and told him what to expect here. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one telling him to come!”